Reviewing Horror Series

Hearing Horror: Why a Davidson Seminar is Studying Horror Films and Their Soundtracks

By Neil Lerner

As a teenager I developed a strong interest in Bernard Herrmann’s film scores. Music in films like Psycho (with its savage accents and dissonances) and Vertigo (with its beautifully obsessive and repetitive qualities) fascinated me long before I ever took a music history course or began writing a dissertation on film music.

I couldn’t have articulated it yet as a young person, but Herrmann’s radical individuality as a composer impressed on me that a Hollywood composer could use a wide variety of musical styles, some of which could be quite experimental and might not at all sound like the typical post-romantic sound pioneered by composers like Max Steiner and Erich Korngold.

After studying modernist and contemporary music in graduate school, I began to notice that some of the avant-garde musical sounds that alienated concert hall audiences in the early part of the twentieth century appeared with some regularity in horror film soundtracks.

It may be regarded as a commonplace of twentieth-century music history that film music absorbed some of the practices of aesthetic modernism from the concert hall, and that in particular the genre of the horror film turned to unresolved dissonance, atonality, and timbral experimentation as part of its characteristic stylistic qualities. Frightening images and ideas can be made even more intense when accompanied with unfamiliar musical sounds, and music in horror films frequently makes us feel threatened and uncomfortable through its sudden stinger chords and other shock effects.

This fall, eleven Davidson students are participating in a seminar studying music and sound in horror films. Interdisciplinary in its approach, the course brings senior music majors into conversation with seniors minoring in film & media studies.

This breadth of backgrounds and perspectives, made possible through Davidson’s commitment to an open-minded liberal arts approach that doesn’t get hung up with disciplinary boundaries, allows us to talk in robust ways about films and their scores, and the students have written blog posts for the month of October that cover a representative sampling of topics and films from our seminar.

In the spirit of Halloween, we hope they’ll be both informative as well as maybe a little bit frightening.

Pictured (above): James Stewart in Vertigo © Paramount Pictures.

Neil LernerNeil Lerner is chair of the Music Department at Davidson College, where he has taught since 1997. A musicologist who publishes regularly on film music, video game music, and music and disability studies, Lerner has edited or co-edited four books, including Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear (Routledge, 2010).